Field of Science

The Early Exploration and Geology of the Chamois Mountains

Su le dentate scintillanti vette, 
salta il camoscio, 
tuona la valanga da' ghiacci immani
rotolando per le selve scroscianti; 

ma da i silenzi de l'effuso azzurro esce nel sole l'aquila,
e distende in tarde ruote digradanti il nero volo solenne.

Giosuè Carducci (1835-1907)

In medieval times the Alps, especially the alpine regions above the tree line, were simply referred as Gamsgebirg - the chamois mountains.

Fig.1. The Livre de chasse is a medieval book on hunting, written between 1387 and 1391 by Gaston III, Count of Foix and dedicated to Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. One figure shows an alpine hunt with ibex and chamois hiding between the peaks.

Only, as a guide from 1917 describes, fools would venture there. However the Alps since ancient times were a traveled region. Shepherds, merchants, collectors of plants and minerals and hunters populated the valleys, high-altitude pastures and maybe sometimes also climbed a peak.
The first person to climb a mountain just "because it´s there" was supposedly Italian poet Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374), as he describes an ascent on Mount Ventoux in France. 

Italian author Valerius Faventies in 1561 publishes “De montium origine”, wherein he collects all the contemporary theories explaining the formation of mountains. An important role was given to celestial influences. But only later authors like cartographer Sebastian Münster (1489-1552), cartographer Johannes Stumpf (1500-1566),  naturalist Konrad Gessner (1516-1565)  and especially naturalist Johann Jakob Scheuchzer (1672-1733) describe mountains in great details, including plants, animals and the geology.

Fig.2. The chamois in Konrad Gessner´s „Allgemeines Thierbuch“ (1565).

Scheuchzer used examples of large-scale folds observed in the Swiss Alps as evidence for the veracity of the Biblical account of a flood in remote times. Only a large flood, a deluge, could twist, break and fold the sedimentary rocks.

Fig.3. "Views of Chamonix, as seen [during the expedition] in 1742", apart glaciers the drawing shows also typical animals, like the ibex, the chamois and the marmot. Figure from a report to the Royal Society in London by William Windham.

Also English theologian and naturalist Thomas Burnet in his book “The Sacred Theory of the Earth“, published in 1684, tries to explain the mountains and shapes of the continents by the biblical flood. The homogenous primordial crust of earth was shattered, releasing water from the underground. The water covers the entire planet and finally flows back in the fissures, leaving behind fragments of the crust that now forms the modern islands and continents. Mountains, so Burnet, were fragments of the primordial crust of earth stacked atop, ruins of the former perfect paradisic world.

Fig.4. The chamois hunter's hunting ground, by Johann Baptist Zwecker (1814–1876).

Still for a long time the Alps were seen as haunted, dangerous and most important unholy territory. One there was "in company of the devil,..." as Swiss naturalist Horace-Bénédict de Saussure (1740-1799) refers to the chamois when writing about the Alps. De Saussure was also the first naturalist to describe the geology of one of the highest peaks in the Alps (mostly composed of granite), the 4,808.73m high Mont Blanc, climbed by his expedition in July 1789.

Interested in reading more? Try: 

BEATTIE, A. (2006): The Alps: A Cultural History. Oxford University Press: 246
BRIDLE, B. (2011): Mountaineers. Royal Geographical Society,The Alpine Club: 359
MacFARLANE, R. (2003): Mountains of the Mind - Adevntures in Reaching the Summit. Random House Publishing, New York: 324

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